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SINGER NOT THE SONG, THE (director: Roy Ward Baker; screenwriters: Nigel Balchin/based on the novel by Audrey Erskine-Lindop; cinematographer: Otto Heller; editor: Roger Cherrill; music: Philip Green; cast: Dirk Bogarde (Anacleto), John Mills (Father Keogh), Mylene Demongeot (Locha), Laurence Naismith (Old Uncle), John Bentley (Chief of Police), Eric Pohlmann (Presidente), Leslie French (Father Gomez); Runtime: 132; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Roy Ward Baker; MGM; 1961-UK)
“An oddball Western Roy Rogers would not have a song for.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A bizarre Western made by the English Rank studio that’s based on the novel by Audrey Erskine-Lindop and written by Nigel Balchin Roy. It’s set in Mexico but the stars are played by gringos, in weird casting decisions. Dirk Bogarde is a ruthless Mexican bandit outfitted in tight black leather pants, while John Mills plays the Oxbridge-accented priest who is the bandit’s antagonist. Their struggle for control of the isolated Mexican town is intensified by Dirk’s homoerotic gestures for the handsome priest. Roy Ward Baker (“Inferno”/”A Night to Remember”/”Morning Departure”) is stuck trying to keep this overlong character drama, which is chatty with hardly any action or humor, from shooting itself in the foot. He succeeds mostly in keeping this philosophical Western moody and suggestively perverse, an oddball Western Roy Rogers would not have a song for. But my hat is off to Baker, despite its awkwardness and queerness it still works. The film has developed a loyal cult following, especially among gays. Dirk’s campy performance makes his outlaw character a gay man more upset that he’s spurned in love than fighting for control of a town. Of note, Dirk in real-life is a closeted gay man.

The dedicated Irish Roman Catholic priest Father Keogh (John Mills) arrives in rural Quantano, Mexico, to replace a dispirited aging Father Gomez (Leslie French), who has been humiliated and the church under his reign is rendered useless by the village’s tyrannical rule of the bandit Anacleto (Dirk Bogarde). Despite physical threats to him, the gutsy Father Keogh openly goes against the bandit and acts to rally the locals around him. One of his best converts is Locha (Mylene Demongeot), the sultry daughter of the leading rancher. Anacleto retaliates by killing the villagers in alphabetical order, but Keogh refuses to be intimidated and continues his verbal assault on the bandit.

Eventually Anacleto, who has a begrudging respect for the courageous priest, moves in with Father Keogh as he wishes to determine whether it is the “song” (the religion) or the “singer” (the priest) that inspires good. That’s where this film fell apart for me (How hokey can you get?). During his stay Anacleto learns that Locha has fallen in love with Father Keogh, and he hides her in his mountain retreat when her family tries to force her into a loveless marriage. The conniving bandit then tells Father Keogh to tell his congregation from the pulpit that he is a failure as a priest, or else he will kill Locha. Father Keogh agrees, but during his sermon he spies Locha safely seated in the congregation. Father Keogh is not amused about being tricked and launches into a violent denunciation of the bandit. The law arrests Anacleto, and his gang attempts to rescue him on the way to prison. In the gunfire, both Anacleto and the priest are fatally wounded. With the two men conveniently dying side by side, Anacleto murmurs “the singer, not the song.”


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”